When Greenhouse Grower magazine publishes its Top 100 Growers every May, most people turn right to “The List” to see who ranked where. I, on the other hand, run right to the surrounding commentary to see the in-depth facts and figures from the growers themselves.
For me, it’s skipping the fun stuff to get to the serious stuff happening in the horticulture industry.
Right away, a gigantic number sticks out at the bottom of Page 24, where first in-depth article by Editor Laura Drotleff starts: 7,622. According to the survey data, that’s “the number of employees the largest greenhouse growers could hire right now if conditions were ideal and they could hire as many people as they actually needed.”
According to the inset box with this data, that number combines the labor shortages of a third of the 2018 Top 100 Growers. Drotleff confirmed to me on Twitter that only 35 or so of the Top 100 answered the question. (That’s how voluntary surveys go sometimes.)
That was me – glad it grabbed your attention! About 35 people responded to that particular question. So it's only representative of about a third of the Top 100 Growers. Whereas smaller growers may not need the same volume as larger growers, the needs add up significantly!
— Laura Drotleff (@Laura_GG_Editor) May 8, 2018
That doesn’t mean that 7,622 is an invalid number. It means we can use that number for a basis to see what it means for the Top 100 Growers (and every other greenhouse grower in the industry).
Because the 7,622 statistic is a fair representation of the entire list, Greenhouse Grower extrapolated that number to 23,000 positions that could be filled at all of the Top 100 Growers throughout the United States.
The number gets even more mind-boggling if you keep in mind The List only considers operations that have environmentally controlled square footage — and it’s only the 100 largest areas “under glass.” That excludes the hundreds upon hundreds more of large-scale nurseries, smaller greenhouse growers, farms, orchards and many other types of horticulture and agriculture operations.
With that in mind, let’s take a look behind the numbers.
What 7,662 means for labor to the 2018 Top 100 Growers
Here at Practical Software Solutions, we serve two industries that have seasonal, fluctuating labor forces: Horticulture and construction. A few short years ago, both of these industries were suffering from a horrible economic crash and high unemployment. Now both of these industries seem to be suffering from a successful rebound — and other outside forces.
Take an example straight out of the Top 100 Growers: Mara Bergen of Bergen’s Greenhouses, which checked in at No. 28, said, “It is true, we cannot hire enough people.”
At their Columbus, Minn., operation, Bergen’s hires half of their employees through temp agencies. At their Detroit Lakes location, 24 of their 60 employees are J-1 Visa Interns from other countries who stay on for nine to 12 months.
But if so many jobs are open, why aren’t people taking them? Well, several reasons.
The elephant in the room is immigration reform. While many people see immigration reform through the lens of national security and putting Americans back to work, many in the horticulture industry see it as a broken promise from a handshake agreement made long ago (and to be fair, from a government that changes wholesale nearly every two years).
It was six years ago now that I wrote an article that opened my eyes about how these gentleman’s agreements for migrant labor made during a more innocent time have started to crumble. I can still recall vividly Marc Fowler, who at the time was our Sage HRMS expert, telling me how the government used to look the other way when the horticulture industry hired their seasonal employees — illegally or legally.
READ MORE: HR compliance strains horticulture industry
Because the U.S. hasn’t been an agrarian society for more than 100 years, we need to import workers to fill the skilled labor jobs. Leave it to Abe VanWingerden of Metrolina Greenhouses to give an even-keeled reaction in the article.
“At 4 percent unemployment, we have to be creative on how we attract labor in this country, but if we don’t follow or enforce the current rules, it is hard to come up with new ones that everyone agrees to,” he said. “The administration wants to grow the economy in the end, so I believe cooler heads will prevail (Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Sen. Thom Tills, etc.), and we will at least have a proposal that addresses all sides’ needs.”
But immigration reform isn’t the only thing preventing all jobs from being filled. Because we’ve spent the last 30 years telling our children to ignore skilled labor jobs, many of the highly-payed, highly skilled labor positions are available. This isn’t just a horticulture problem. Recently, I wrote a blog post highlighting a report that said six-figure salaries are going unfulfilled in the construction industry for the same reason.
What 7,266 means for technology for the 2018 Top 100 Growers
While 77 percent of this year’s Top 100 Growers reported they were impacted by labor shortages, 76 percent said they were looking to reduce their labor force. Also, 78 percent are interested in investing in automation and technology. It’s not surprising these numbers are nearly identical. If you don’t have enough labor, you have to find a way to automate or get lean.
While the No. 1 automation technology the 2018 Top 100 Growers are looking to invest in is production automation, right behind it is computer software. Nearly half of these respondents said they were looking to invest in a business system.
Obviously, we’re in a pretty good position to confirm the uptick in growers looking to invest in a business system. The same pains mentioned in the article are the same things we’re hearing: Growers need to do more with less hands on deck.
With so many growers looking to upgrade to a more modern business system, we’ve been getting the word out to the industry how important it is to choose the correct software. Last year at Cultivate’17, we presented “Business Systems 101,” where we went over the ways growers can make sure they’re in the right size software for their business’ needs.
Just like they do when they’re purchasing an automation tool, growers need to research the different business systems available for them on the market. As with any other tool, go too small and you have nowhere to grow. Go too large and you’re wasting money.
With that in mind, the most important way growers can automate with software is to make sure they’re using an integrated system, not one that’s made of disparate parts. This is the key to automation, just like in the greenhouse: The less you have to have hands on the product, the more efficient the production.
In conclusion, the horticulture industry does seem to be trending upward again. There’s growth again in the industry and many of the Top 100 Growers are expanding. The growers who are prepared for this expansion will be in the best spot to face whatever challenges the industry faces.